Christians Caught Between the Sheets — How ‘abstinence only’ Ideology Hurts Us
There are few subjects as explosive inside the Christian church as sexuality. The level of reactivity with which people discuss sexuality, parent around sexuality, silence sexuality, and judge and shame sexuality has no equal. For centuries we have fostered this reactivity through the silence and shame that fills most adult’s sexual story and later as parents, assuming a mostly “off limits” silencing stance in our homes with our children. When sexuality is brought up there is usually a swift, reactive and authoritarian response that sounds something like, “Don’t do that!” That is “wrong” or “bad” or “only for people who are married.” And then perpetuating the cycle, we assist our children in going underground with their sexuality, filling with a shame, guilt and self-loathing that finds no place to be comforted. The cycle of shame, silence, and separation of sexuality from faith, grace, and God’s relentless and embodied love is continued. Why have we allowed this? Why have we not examined this with less reactivity and more earnestness? Where is Christ’s love and grace in our sexual stories, our parenting, or the stories of our children?
After over ten years of teaching a graduate level human sexuality course at a Christian university and reading well over 300 sexual autobiographies, I am fascinated by why we as a Christian church, as parents, as sexual people, don’t challenge this view? More than 80% of the autobiographies I have read have told the same basic story.
The general story regarding the family they grew up in: ‘My parents never talked about sex and if they did it was to give me a book and tell me to ask questions, which of course there was ‘no way’ I would do. I remember being yelled at when they caught me playing doctor when I was 6 and I felt horrible, though I was not sure what I had done. I only knew it was really bad! I was also told that I was not to have sex until I was married and that masturbation was wrong.’ Girls from more conservative homes where told that they were to keep themselves ‘pure and protected.’ They were not to even kiss a boy because it might “get the boy going.” Many were told that if they did not save themselves for marriage they would be bringing a ‘used person’ to the relationship and their sexual relationship with their husband/wife would never be what it could be. The dominant message is, “The word “sex” was not spoken, nor was any remotely related topic discussed. In other words, silence about sexuality in my family meant it was shameful, scary, hurtful or controversial.” 32 year-old.
The general (hidden) personal story regarding sexual development is: I participated in age appropriate sexual play as a child (doctor), older child (often girls pretending to be married and laying on top of each other and/or kissing), pre-adolescents with masturbation, adolescence with romantic connections involving kissing, touching, and later adolescence or early adulthood progressing to genital intercourse within a loving relationship prior to marriage. And then I read either, “I felt overwhelming shame and guilt for my sexual desires and sexual experiences and still to this day I feel guilt even though I am married.” Or “I decided I was not going to feel guilty and ashamed because my relationship with my boyfriend/girlfriend was wonderful, safe, loving and tender. Sometimes I feel guilty for not feeling guilty.” The dominant message is, “For so long I’ve associated sex with negativity, but it did not necessarily need to be that way. The narrow-minded view of religion from my growing up has prevented me from incorporating spirituality into sexuality. I have always viewed them as two different entities.” 35 year-old.
If these samples represent the majority experience of educated adults from loving Christian homes (and many non-Christian middle and upper middle class homes),1 then why are we not boldly challenging the origins of the discourse that sex, sexuality, and desire are dangerous, carnal, and separate us from God?
Many people may be unaware that scholars of early church history note a significant shift in doctrinal thought in the 4th century. Prior to this time, free will given by God was a central theological principal. But during this time a notable shift began to occur in both church leadership and the cultural and political climate. Augustine, a church leader, proposed that all sexuality, all sensual pleasure, involved the triumph of the carnal will. Since sin was located in the carnal will and not the act, Augustine developed a rigorous puritanical attitude towards sexuality that would orient the Christian church until the present day.2,3
If these rigid ideas of sexuality are informed more by particular religious and political events than by the gospel of Christ, why do we perpetuate it? And when we do, what is the cost we pay? If we were to define a revised Christian sexual ethic, which in part returned us to a spiritually integrated covenant approach to sexual understanding and education, what would we be teaching and modeling instead?
When we continue to shroud sexuality in silence and an abstinence only discourse, we continue to burden faith filled children, adolescents, young adults and adults with a deep shame that interrupts their ability to fully know God’s love and grace. Shame modulates distance in intimacy and sexual expression in the monogamous relationships that are foundational to community living and a significant expression of God’s active love. When people are filled with shame and self-loathing, their affected self-esteem takes precedence in interactions with others. It dominates and eclipses a person’s ability to see and love another. In essence, sexuality encased in silence and shame keeps people from intimately knowing both God and each other, and cripples our ability as a community of believers to truly love and be a healing force in our hurting world.
Unveiling Sexual Shame
Throughout popular Christian literature now and for sixteen hundred years, Christians have dismembered themselves from their sexuality, their hearts, minds, bodies, eroticism, and their faith. Beginning in the 4th century free will and an appreciation for God’s creation in the body was exchanged for the notion of the body and its desires as sin. David Schnarch in his book Constructing the Sexual Crucible says,
“The sex affirming Hebraic roots of Western civilization has been masked by Augustine’s legacy of eroticism-hating sexual dualism, perpetuated by authoritarian-rooted Christian dogma, which negated the basic worthiness of human beings. The evolution of Western culture is a history of theologically based sexual oppression.”5
While the culture touts the objectification of the body and uses it in whole and part to fuel its consumer driven economy, Christians support a message about abstinence that dismembers intercourse from sexuality, intimacy, faith and relationships. We are in crisis over sexuality in our culture in part because the church has been largely unable to step away from the old Christian ethic and develop a responsible sexual ethic that is based on both what we have come to learn from science and experience, with the revelations of the Gospel.6 Christine Gudorf in her book, Body, Sex and Pleasure highlights this when she states,
“Traditional Christian sexual ethics is not only inadequate in that it fails to reflect God’s reign of justice and love which Jesus died announcing, but its legalistic, apologetic approach is also incompatible with central Judaic and Christian affirmations of creation, life, and an incarnate messiah. Because the Christian sexual tradition has diverged from this its life-affirming source, it has become responsible for innumerable deaths, the stunting of souls, the destruction of relationships, and the distortion of human communities. The Christian sexual tradition uses scripture and theological traditions as supports for a code of behavior which developed out of mistaken, pre-scientific understanding of man, anatomy, physiology and reproduction, as well as out of now abandoned and discredited models of the human person and human relationships.”7
While earning a graduate degree in Family Therapy, students are required to take a course in Human Sexuality, which explores the interface of sexuality with family and relational health. Because therapists will walk with clients and families in places of extreme vulnerability, it is important that they clearly understand their particular issues, experiences, values and beliefs. For this reason all students in our program are given the assignment to write their sexual autobiography through the lens of their family of origin, gender and faith. Questions are given to guide them through each developmental stage to the present. The vast majority of autobiographies reveal that these adults grew up in either a sexually evasive or sexually negative home. Well meaning parents, seeped in an unwitting hurtful sexual ethic, believed they were training up their children by protecting them from learning about sexuality or worse telling their child that sex was bad, inappropriate, harmful, a sign of faithlessness, or something to be avoided. Instead of providing a continual developmentally appropriate education about the nature and purposes of sexuality, this was exchanged for an abstinence only message sounding something like, “God wants you to have a wonderful and blessed sexual relationship with your spouse someday and because of that it is important that you keep yourself pure and a virgin until then.” It is as if the embedded message is ‘abstaining from intercourse and anything that might lead you to desire this, will guarantee an intimate, trusting, faith-filled, erotic, safe, healthy, dynamic, sexual partnership during your marriage.’ But in fact this is not the case. And unfortunately, most Christians know, deny, and repeat this. Nowhere in this absolute premarital chastity discourse is the message that sex can be healing and joyful (sometimes outside and sometimes inside of marriage), that it can lead to growth, a deeper more intimate relationship with God, and above all is created good, on purpose, as a gift, and for your pleasure and communion.8
Normal developmental desires for sexual touch, arousal, orgasm and intimacy were relegated to ‘sin’ – a place far from the God these youth loved. In fact many were taught that it was ‘this kind’ of sinful desire that separated them from God and kept them from knowing God’s love and blessing. Any attempts to gain or understand sexuality was blocked or punished. In these homes we often hear that exploring one’s body was totally forbidden and they were punished when they ‘were caught.’ Gudorf says, “In truth, sex-avoidant families truncate their children’s ability to feel comfortable with sexuality as adults. Sex therapists find their offices filled with people who have been socialized not to even think about sex, therefore are unable to explore enough to know what they like sexually.”9Shame has a profound affect on people’s sense of themselves and thus on their ability to receive and accept God’s love. This affect touches every aspect of their lives and most centrally their most intimate and personal relationships.10 In 2005, the Journal of Counseling Psychology published an article on shame stating, “Many theorists consider shame to be an experience or attribution about the self as a whole; specifically, an intense negative affect about the self in its entirety. Shame theorists suggest that this emotion is likely to be promoted by a parenting style or family system that reflects a negative attitude to the child, consistently points out the failure of the child in other’s eyes (implicitly or explicitly) and activates attributions about the whole self. An authoritarian parenting style appears to be associated with such a negative orientation. As defined by one researcher, authoritarian parents are demanding and directive, place a high value on obedience and conformity and are unresponsive and even outright rejecting when the child fails to meet their expectations. They provide an orderly environment and a clear set of rules and regulations, and monitor their child closely, but they expect unquestioning obedience and will use force and punishment if they do not get it. In short, the child is held to high standards and expectations, given little control and autonomy, and punished for failure. These harsh and punitive attitudes may lay the foundation for global negative self-attribution and shame.”11
“Any sexual experience I had as a child produced guilt and fear, especially sex play behavior. For a long time I thought something as wrong with me because of this. Because of these feelings, discussing sexuality became difficult for me. I felt like sexuality was ‘dirty.’ I think these experiences contributed to my feeling like sexuality and becoming a woman was shameful; that my parents did not accept that part of me.” 29 year-old.
“What I learned from their avoidance of the topic was that sexuality was a taboo topic, that it was not a natural part of being human. I learned it was embarrassing and shameful.” 24 year-old.
A recent article published in the Christian journal New Man (June 2006) on talking to boys about masturbation, revealed the prevalence of this hurtful and guilt filled message, “So if he (the boy) is willing to keep himself for his future spouse and focus his sexual fantasies on marriage, God will give him grace andforgiveness (italics added) for pleasuring himself as often as is necessary until he is married.” Though the message in this article is covert, it is deafeningly clear and hurtful, masturbation is sinful – in need of forgiveness and grace. When a child grows up in a family seeped in a sexually avoidant and negative atmosphere and is unable to free themselves through reading, peer experiences or talking to other adults, they will not develop a sense that sexuality is normal, pleasurable and God blessed. Sex therapist and expert, David Schnarch echoes this when he suggests, “Silence suggests that eroticism is dirty, inherently embarrassing, dangerous, inappropriate, or vulgar; silence is an education in sexual attitudes and gender roles. Like it or not, the family is always the predominant purveyor of the child’s erotic map and attitudes toward eroticism.”12 Far too many learn to associate sexual feelings, desires, and action with shame and aversive consequences. This remains well into adulthood manifesting itself both in the bedroom and in parenting.
“My husband and I both came from good Christian homes and were virgins when we married at 23 years old. Both of our families didn’t talk about sexual matters. For most of the first 24 years of our marriage I had low sexual desire and my husband was the constant initiator. It set up a bad dynamic between us. All I knew was what I ‘should’ do and nothing about what I really wanted as a wife or a sexual person. This pattern finally began to change as our kids grew older and I began to work on my own reactivity and lack of autonomy. This helped tremendously in my ability to exercise more freedom within our sexual relationship. I found that the more I grew sexually the more intriguing our relationship became. I am just now discovering how sexuality is linked to spirituality in my life. My husband has helped me to feel free to experiment and find new ways to be intimate with him.” 53 year-old.
“When I look back, I do not feel regret for any of my sexual development. I would not change any of the decisions I made, because I think I made good decisions that were congruent with where I was in that part of my life. What I do feel sad about is how I felt about myself throughout my adolescence. I lived under the umbrella of thinking that I was not normal, that nobody else felt or acted the way I did. How much I would love to be able to go back in time and comfort my teenage self.” 28 year-old.
We have also long known both personally and statistically that when forbidding sexual expression is the only sex education a child/adolescent/young adult receives, this does not lower the incidence of sexual involvement. The U.S. has one of the highest incidences of teenage pregnancy, STD’s and early onset sexual activity of any industrialized country. In fact there are studies to show that abstinence-only education has been known to increase the incidence of sexual intercourse in adolescents.13 What does forbidding sexual expression or abstinence-only education do? Without an understanding of a God created normal sexual development, open communication, grace filled answers and direction, adolescents will go underground, feeling shame and self loathing each and every time they desire or act on sexual longing. This shame and silence places adolescents and young adults at risk of entering an addiction cycle with their sexuality. The child who masturbates when they have been told that it is wrong or worse are told that God does not approve, feels shame, vows to stop, obsesses on their thoughts and desires both to masturbate and to stop, acts again, feels even more self loathing… and the cycle continues carving a deep grove into the psyche, sexuality and faith of this person. The damage this does to a person’s ability to understand God’s love for them, to accept God’s grace and forgiveness, feel love, give love, or have a healthy sexual relationship, even inside the context of a committed partnership, is significant. I believe much of what we see in sexual perversion inside and outside the Christian church; use of pornography, multiple affairs, sexual abuse, sexual offending, etc. can be linked to this silence, secrecy, and shame cycle and discourse. Thomas Moore in an article on sexuality states, “Our culture segregates sexuality. We try to cut it out of every other part of life, thus ignoring the fact that it has an impact on all parts of life. By trying to ignore this part of ourselves, it starts forcing itself in unexpected and undesirable ways, such as pornography, illicit affairs, prostitution, etc.”14
“I was left to explore sexuality on my own terms and this searching continued when I started to masturbate at age 12. Although I did not want my parents to find out, I did not feel guilty about doing it. I did not think that there was anything wrong or immoral about it until I was in high school and someone at my church said that masturbation was a sin. I then started to experience an intense amount of guilt about masturbating but did not quit. I felt bad about myself for not having the self-control to stop. I thought I was weird; that other girls and Christians did not masturbate. I denied doing it and would have been extremely ashamed if anyone found out that I did.” 33 year-old.
Does it make any sense that when a child’s curiosity about the body begins as a toddler and desire to understand and relieve one’s sexual arousal cycle peaks in early teens, that we give children no paradigm or open conversation to understand the gift and desire of sexuality and the workings of the body?
The Cry For a Revised Christian Sexual Ethic
“I struggled with religious intolerance of premarital sex. I believe it is an unrealistic standard that utilized guilt to ensure abstinence. At 20 I became very disconnected from my parents because I did not feel comfortable talking to them about my relationship or sex. My junior year I began dating this really nice guy that I had gone to high school with. By the time we had been dating six months I felt ready to sleep with him. I would not change losing my virginity with this person because I know that we cared for one another and it felt mutually loving and respectful.” 27 year-old.
“It was not until my late teenage years in my first real relationship that I started to enjoy sexual behaviors. I felt like I was compromising my Christian values and struggled with the question of what purity really was. I lived through the guilt by distancing myself from my faith. I thought how could I be a Christian if I enjoy being sexual with this man before marriage. Nobody had ever told me how to integrate my sexuality and spirituality. All I heard was ‘Do not engage in premarital sex!’” 30 year-old.
Any revised Christian sexual ethic, like in other arenas of ethics, must first begin with a description of the lived reality of people and communities. It must also consider what we know in the physical and social sciences. Then we must subject this to a theological reflection regarding the meaning and significance of the various factual elements.
So what are the questions we are failing to ask and why are we failing to ask them? Here is a set of questions. They are not the questions but rather a portion of a discourse of questions integrating sexuality and a deep Christian faith.
1. What messages did I get as a child that helped me integrate my sexuality with God’s love?
2. What messages did I get growing up that helped me see God’s love in my body, its senses and responses, and my developing sexuality?
3. How was I encouraged to cherish and know my body and sexuality?
4. What behaviors and messages helped me develop this?
5. Who taught me about my body, my sexuality, sexual health, and God’s intention for us to experience His pleasure and love in and through our bodies, our senses and our developing sexuality at each stage along the way?
6. How did I learn to marvel at my arousal cycle, an orgasm, and God’s love woven through?
7. How does God express His love through my sexuality and how have I learned to cultivate that through my life. How did my parents help me to do this? How did the messages in and from my church community help me do this?
8. Re-ask yourself questions 1 – 7 adding what you would have wanted if you did not receive the messages needed to develop a sacred and integrated sexuality.
9. What helps me now and what has helped me along my life to understand the beauty and gift of my body?
10. How do I open myself to an integration of faith, gratefulness, joy, pleasure, God, eroticism, my body, and my partner (if/when I have one)?
11. What kind of sexually and spiritually integrated partnership would we most want and most hope for our children?
12. In light of our own experiences, hopes, desires and hard earned wisdom, how do we help children understand the gift of their body and their developing sexuality at each developmental stage?
Why Have We Failed to Ask Ourselves These Questions that Align With the New Covenant?
Could it be that if we ask these questions we (partnered adult Christians) will have to answer to the pain and isolation in our own sexuality and sexual partnership? Will we have to confront how we continue to keep our sexual desires separated from God and our deepest faith? Or how we keep our deepest faith from our partner? If we as a church were to embrace these questions and others like them, how might it change the way we raise our children and invite them into the redeeming gift of God’s love with respect to their sexuality? Would we have to confront the effects and earthly cultural origins of the puritanical discourse espousing the ‘dangers’ of the flesh? How the religious and historical context had eclipsed our ability to hear Christ’s redeeming message of love and grace as it related to our bodies and our sexuality? Would we have to face how we were hurt by the shame and silence of this message during our developing years? How that pain still lives on in our lives? How our self-condemnation is still present in how we think about our bodies and ourselves sexually? Would we have to face how we have dutifully passed this shame, silence, and self-condemnation on to our adult children who now struggle to create a sacred relationship with their bodies, sexuality, faith and partner? Could we face the pain that has been unwittingly passed on by our hands?
When we spend time exploring these types of questions, we expose ourselves to the wisdom gained from our life. Wisdom held in our hearts and shaped through an integration of our faith, relationships and lived experience. We all too often do not access this wisdom and instead only privilege information generated outside of us, told to us, preached to us. When we honestly examine the knowledge gained from our experience, we do so knowing the full context of our time and culture. This gives us an opportunity to know something inside the context of the when, where, and how of the series of experiences. All too often when we absorb information outside of us, preached to us in churches, media, from others, we fail to know the context of that information or ‘truth.’ The teller speaks the truth for God, scripture, or as an expert. Understanding historical context, culture, norms and expectations gives a framework for understanding the information as it was meant to be understood, yet gaining this contextual information is often time consuming and unrealistic. This is why it is critical that people resource the knowledge and wisdom of their lived experience. Draw on this, examine this and hold it up next to the current Christian cultural discourse being espoused. This is a valuable untapped resource.
Sifting through sexual autobiographies over the last several years has highlighted two primary repeating themes fostering a life of celebrated and integrated sexuality. I believe these themes will be fostered in a new Christian sexual ethic, and I believe this will heal many wounds and relieve a great deal of silent suffering:
1. Being raised in a home that does not shame the body, the desire to enjoy the body, or developing sexual desire.
2. A home that gives a context for this desire wrapped in God’s deep love and intention. This will be housed in an ongoing open age appropriate conversation that helps a child at every developmental stage develop ways to celebrate their bodies and senses, and act in ways that include God’s love and produce gratefulness. And as they enter adolescence, helps them define and author a story of their unfolding sexuality that feels honoring to them – their values and goals, an other, and their God, while they look forward to sharing this within a committed partnership.
“My brothers and sisters and I have all struggled through the wall of silence to find sexuality to be a joyful thing. I am pleased we had the strength to persist, believing that sex had to be something better than what our parents suggested.” 42 year-old.
“I am encouraged to stop the legacy of sexuality being silenced, shamed and seen negatively when I have my own family. I want to openly discuss topics of sexuality with my children and not shame them for their experiences. My hope is to embrace sexuality as a normal and wonderful part of being human so that my children can feel that I love all parts of them, even their eroticism, and they can learn to love and respect all parts of themselves too.” 27 year-old.
Building an intimate, sexual, sacred, trusting, loving, strong and spiritually integrated partnership takes depth of skills, character, faith, courage, integrity, and practice. And most achieve only a small portion of the extent of relationship possible. In fact those who have long struggled to create such a spiritually integrated and trusting sexual relationship have done so without the help and support of popular Christian literature or the church. Far too many have had to unravel years of deeply woven emotional and physical shame (beliefs and responses) from their years of silence and self-degradation in childhood through young adulthood.
Spiritually Integrated Sexuality – The Vision
A deep faith and a heart filled with gratefulness often produce a spiritual person deeply interested in the contemplative dimension and mystery of sexuality. I see this in my students as they spend time in their sexual development stories and as they increase in wisdom, intention and attention to the integration of sexuality and spirituality in their lives now and as they craft their future. I see an increase in their concern for the quality of human relationships, and an increase alignment with this aspect of Christ’s ministry – that the central role of all relating is genuine love. It is this lens that calls out all abuses of power and all self-gratification without regard for the well being of the other. They can see this in and out of marriages, with and without sexual expression, in the withholding passive stance, as well as the aggressive or manipulative stance. They can begin to call forth in themselves and in the people they serve, a clearer application to sexual relating involving both authenticity and responsibility.16 If we are to act in a way that is shrouded in God’s grace and love, then we need to commit to being honest, in and out of our sexual relating. And we must be responsible and genuinely concerned for the welfare of ourselves, our partners, and any life that may result from a sexual relationship. Being responsible and authentic will help to eclipse most sexual concerns and abuses: exploitation, STD’s, careless sex, and unplanned pregnancy. All of these hurt our selves, others, and violate our call to love.
1. David Schnarch discusses this in detail in Constructing the Sexual Crucible. 1991. WW Norton & Co., New York. Pg 316-318.
2. Though later in life Augustine converted to a Christian faith, Augustine at the age of 29 years in 373 joined a sect called the Manicheans. Manicheism attracted Augustine because it taught the harsh but strangely comforting doctrine that sex was synonymous with darkness and bore the marks of the evil creator.http://www.augnet.org/default.asp
3. Throughout the Confessions, Augustine uses harsh language to describe his sexual impulses reflecting images of disease, disorder, and corruption. Desire is almost a compulsion, an irrational impulse that he feels incapable of controlling without God’s help, a bondage that he is too weak to escape. Desire becomes an overbearing obstacle between Augustine and a complete commitment to God, because he is certain he cannot live a celibate life.
4. Pagels, E. Adam, Eve and the Serpent. 1988. First Vintage Books, New York.
5. Schnarch, D. Constructing the Sexual Crucible. 1991. WW Norton & Co., New York. Pg Pg. 548.
6. Gudorf, C. Body, Sex and Pleasure – Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics. 1994. Pilgrim Press, Ohio.
8. Furlong, M. Sexuality and the Sacred – Sources for Theological Reflection. Ed. Nelson, J., Longfellow, S.
9. Zoldbrod, A. Sex Smart – How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What To Do About It. 2005. Page Free Publishing, MI.
10. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2006.
11. Mills, R. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 2005
12. See Schnarch, D. 1991.
13. Francoeur, R., Taverner, W. Taking Sides – Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Human Sexuality. 7th Edition. 2000. Dushkin/ McGraw-Hill Publisher.
14. For a more complete version of this work see: Moore, T. The Soul of Sex – Cultivating Life as an Act of Love. 1998. Harper-Collins, New York.
15. Hart, T. Spiritual Quest – A Guide to the Changing Landscape. 1999. Paulist Press, New Jersey.
As a behavioral scientist and family therapist, Tina Schermer Sellers specializes in helping to craft relationships, organizations and lives that flourish. She draws from 20 years experience as a teacher, professor, consultant, trainer, and clinician. Ms. Sellers is a frequent national speaker and writer on family and culture, integrative healthcare, building and sustaining effective and innovative work environments, and the integration of spirituality, health and leadership. She is a clinical professor in the graduate Family Therapy Department at Seattle Pacific University and director of their post-graduate certificate in Medical Family Therapy. Ms. Sellers is also clinical faculty with the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine and director of Northwest Collaborative Health.